|By Jason Garcia, Orlando
SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 19, 2013--Under a sweltering sun in August 1971, a 17-year-old just out of high school waited in a long line leading to an office trailer in a cleared palmetto thicket. The Walt Disney Co. was hiring for its soon-to-open Florida theme park, and the kid needed to pay for college.
Disney gave him a job clearing tables in a hotel restaurant.
Forty-two years later, Disney has a new assignment for George Kalogridis: president of the entire operation.
Effective Feb. 1, Kalogridis becomes the fifth president of Walt Disney World, a 40-square-mile vacation metropolis that today includes four theme parks, two water parks, 24,000 hotel rooms, 3,000 time-share suites, a 120-acre retail complex and a 230-acre sports campus.
The assignment transforms the 59-year-old Winter Haven native into one of the most prominent corporate executives in Florida, presiding over a business that generates more than $6 billion in annual revenue and employs nearly 67,000 people.
Kalogridis has described it as his "dream job" to friends and colleagues in Anaheim, Calif., where since 2009 he has been president of the company's Disneyland Resort.
He takes over at an important time for Disney World, where attendance has been soft in recent quarters. The giant resort has just opened the first phases of a $425 million Fantasyland expansion, its first major renovation of the Magic Kingdom since Kalogridis was busing tables in Disney's Contemporary Resort.
And Disney is about to make perhaps its boldest bet in Orlando since opening its fourth theme park: a $1 billion vacation-planning initiative dubbed "MyMagic+," which aims to outfit visitors with wireless wristbands that Disney hopes will drive bigger spending and more frequent visits.
"The first thing I see is one big word: humility. This is a very, very big place, and having been able to see it from Day 1 and to see it now -- truly, you have to respect just how incredible this project is," Kalogridis said in an interview last week.
Friends and colleagues say Kalogridis lives and breathes Disney. He and his partner of 12 years, Andy Hardy, just paid a deposit to build a home in Golden Oak, the luxury subdivision that Disney World is developing on the northeastern corner of its vast property.
He has a collection of every name tag issued to him since he started with Disney. It's a sizable collection: Kalogridis has pinballed through a dozen positions during the course of his career, from an underage waiter, too young to serve alcohol, to the chief operating officer of Disneyland Paris. Along the way, he earned a degree in sociology from the University of Central Florida.
"He's very passionate about the brand. It's just part of him," said Don Robinson, a former managing director of Hong Kong Disneyland who rose through the company's ranks with Kalogridis.
More so than many other present-day execs, friends say, Kalogridis is steeped in the company's tradition of show and service. Years ago, when he was the general manager of Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, a guest expressed concern about an event taking place on wet grass. Kalogridis toweled down the lawn himself.
From 1995 to 2000, Kalogridis ran Epcot, Disney World's second-busiest theme park. He conceived and launched the park's International Food and Wine Festival to help generate attendance during a typically slow period in the fall. It is now one of Disney World's largest annual events.
He expanded the Candlelight Processional holiday show, adding multiple performances per night and designing dinner packages to sell with it. An avid traveler, Kalogridis also helped create Disney's now-ubiquitous pin-trading program, drawing inspiration from pins he saw for sale at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
"What's most impressive about George is how much he cares about his team," said Ed Baklor, who was once hired by Kalogridis to run World Showcase in Epcot and now is a senior executive at WestJet Airlines. "It's all about making sure you're taking care of your front-line team."
Kalogridis' star has soared since he took over as president of Disneyland, where attendance and spending have ballooned following a $1.2 billion rebuild of the Disney California Adventure theme park, which culminated with last summer's opening of Cars Land. Kalogridis is routinely spotted wandering Disneyland's two parks, chatting with visitors and employees.
Some of his success there was clearly a function of timing, as the massive building program was conceived and launched before he arrived. But people familiar with the changes say Kalogridis has put his stamp on things, lobbying for the addition of a private dining lounge for members of an exclusive fan club, and pressing for an aggressive round of price increases that capitalized on the popularity of Cars Land.
Kalogridis, a park-operations expert who is in the office by 7 a.m. most days, also noted that guest-satisfaction ratings at Disney California Adventure remained constant despite five years of construction.
"I think he showed up at the right time. But he also enhanced the revenues quite a bit," said Al Lutz, founder of MiceAge.com, a popular website for news and rumors about Disney's theme-park business.
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